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Nisei Story: Unexpected Friendship Lost and Found

Teresa Chizu Kurisu lived a normal Powell Street life as a child. She attended Strathcona Elementary School in East Vancouver and went to Japanese Language School soon after with her Japanese Canadian friends. Teresa’s parents were Catholic so she took in church activities with her parents. This was a time when Sister Mary Stella, aka Kathleen O’Melia, established the Japanese Catholic Mission (JCM) on Dunlevy and Cordova in 1926. The Kurisu family was one of the first converts.

Japanese Canadian Catholics in the early ’30s. Teresa Kurisu in center front with dark coat with fur collar. Backdrop is Japanese Catholic Mission near Powell Street in Vancouver. Sr. Mary Stella at the back in front of the door. Photo courtesy of Japanese Catholic Mission. 

Teresa’s father Hisakichi was employed at the Orange Kist soda factory. It was a very steady job. Her mother, Tomi, being a seamstress, operated a dry cleaning business on Hastings Street. Therefore, Teresa and her brother Bill lived very comfortably. The family knew the Franciscan Sisters and Friars well.

Teresa experienced Nikkei life on Powell Street as a teenager and she had the opportunity to take piano lessons. Life was great until the fateful day of December 7, 1941.

Luckily, after attending a meeting held by the parish priest and nuns, the Kurisu family was able to store all their household goods in the Mission Hall. They were told the train would take them to a place called Greenwood. Greenwood was incorporated as a city because it was once a bustling copper smelting community of over 3000 people. After 1919, the city’s population dwindled to about 200. There were many empty buildings to accommodate the Japanese Canadians. Hisakichi and son Bill were sent to a road camp while mother and Teresa got on the CPR train that took 18 hours to arrive in Greenwood in May of 1942.

On this journey, mother became ill, and on arrival she was taken to Windsor Hotel owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jack Maclean. Mr. Kurisu was recalled to tend to his wife’s needs, but Bill wasn’t released from road camp.

While staying at the hotel, Teresa was befriended by the Maclean family who had a daughter named Marion. Teresa gave Marion some basic piano lessons. This was 1942 when the Japanese Canadians were labeled ‘Enemy Aliens’ and most people initially had apprehension. Yet, Marion seemed unafraid to embrace Teresa’s friendship.

Teresa Kurisu and Marion Maclean in Greenwood circa 1943. Photo courtesy of Teresa Ogawa.  

During this time, Dr. John Burnett, a resident physician in charge of all the Japanese Canadian evacuees came to check on Mrs. Kurisu. After a couple of weeks, she recovered. The family was sent to Greenwood Auto Court north of the city. Most were one-room cabins which housed mostly elderly and ill members. Mrs. Kurisu, however, was still bed-ridden for quite some time.

Mr. Kurisu started a small vegetable garden, but season was short-lived for soon winter arrived and snow covered the ground. The pond across from the auto court froze over and Teresa and her friends enjoyed skating.

In approximately a year, Bill was released from road camp to join the family. The auto camp cabin became too small so father rented a single story house on 266 Kimberly Avenue. In it, they found a four-legged porcelain bathtub! Inside the shed, was an antique grand piano with chipped keys. Teresa was so happy that she could continue playing the piano.

Mr. Kurisu raised chickens for extra income. Mrs. Kurisu recovered from her illness to start a sewing class and it was called ‘Academy of Domestic Arts’. Teresa and Marion became very close friends so she continued to give Marion piano lessons. Later in life, Teresa was told by Marion that she played a rendition at Toshimi (Ochiai) Mitsui’s wedding. Teresa was so impressed.

During her sojourn in Greenwood, Teresa was employed by the B.C. Security Commission as a secretary to Dr. John Burnett who was the director of the hospital. Many of Teresa’s friends were nurse’s aides like Shirley (Handa) Sora and Monica (Yuasa) Matsubuchi who worked at a private hospital in Grand Forks.

In the fall of 1946, Teresa’s parents chose to return to Japan and she went with them. However, Bill who was married to Kazuko Izumi of Christina Lake, and with a baby son, chose to remain in Greenwood. They later relocated to Toronto.

In Japan, Teresa worked with the U.S. Occupational Forces. She wrote a postcard to Marion in 1946 while Marion was still in high school in Greenwood.

In 1950, Teresa met and married Haruji Ogawa, a Japanese American Nisei soldier from Maui who was with the MIS (Military Intelligence Service). Teresa followed her husband’s career as a soldier that took them to several military base in the U.S. Haruji retired as a Major in the MIS. As a civilian, Haruji worked twenty years in the Department of Defense in Novato, California. In 1989, the family settled in Los Angeles to be near their adult son and daughter.

At this time, Marion had married and moved to San Diego, California. The Kona Kai Yacht Club was her late husband Glenn Bovee’s first love until he passed away suddenly on their vacation trip to Switzerland. Marion became the Vice-Commodore and later the first woman to become Commodore at the yacht club. In 1996, Marion was awarded the Blue Gavel Humanitarian Foundation as a respected local Yachtwoman. The Foundation’s President remarked that Marion’s consistently professional contribution and ability to interface with other Blue Gavel countries was legendary. It was a flashback to her days in Greenwood, in which she embraced the Nikkei culture almost immediately. There were many photos of Japanese Canadian activities, and one blonde girl stood out in the crowd! As Commodore, Marion was at ease greeting Japanese delegates for many years at Kona Kai Yacht Club.

Marion, the only Caucasian, on the float. Photo courtesy of Teresa Ogawa.

Marion and Teresa lost touch after moving out of Greenwood. Marion while living in the U.S. tried to contact Teresa, but she had left Japan by then. For years, Marion kept searching for Teresa’s whereabouts for over fifty years, but to no avail. Around 1997, Marion got a hold of Toshimi Mitsui and she knew where Teresa was living. To Marion’s surprise, Teresa was living in the same state of California! Marion lived in San Diego and Teresa in Los Angeles. Marion wrote a long letter to Teresa about her journey in life. In 1997, Marion invited Teresa to be the guest at Kona Kai Hotel. They had a wonderful reunion with long talks and exchange of photos and letters. Soon after, Marion’s health began to weaken. It was meant to be that two best friends would once again see each other. It must have been such a fantastic, emotional reunion.

San Diego reunion. Teresa Ogawa and Marion Bovee in 1997. Photo courtesy of Teresa Ogawa.

Marion passed away in 2010. Teresa is still in Los Angeles, texting and phoning her friends in Canada. I was very fortunate to meet Teresa and her daughter Cindy in 2015 at my niece’s place when I completed the Route 66 bus trip from Chicago to LA. Fate has it that my niece Mary Nakagawa, husband Kim Marti and daughter Kimberly lived only 20 minutes away by car.

Marion Maclean had no pre-conceived notion about the Japanese Canadians and she quickly joined in on many Nikkei activities. She played a part of a nurse in the 1946 Farewell (Go East of the Rockies or Repatriate to Japan) Concert. She was the only hakujin in the play. Teresa was leaving for Japan that year, not knowing that they would be separated for over fifty years. Destiny has it that Marion and Teresa found closure with a coincidental reunion in California.


© 2017 Chuck Tasaka

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